blue background with a paper cut out of a person suffering from functional incontinence

Functional Incontinence: Causes & Tips for Caregivers

Many of the conditions that affect us as we age can be quite personal. That makes it all the more essential for caretakers, medical teams, and aging individuals alike to open lines of communication and learn how to recognize common conditions and symptoms. This ensures that patients can discuss their needs, and caretakers know how to help in the best ways possible. 

One of our body systems often affected as we age is the urinary tract and bladder system, which can affect the need, frequency, and ability to urinate. Without proper treatment and management, older individuals can be left feeling isolated in their care needs, with conditions like a distended bladder, urinary tract infection, and urinary incontinence being left unaddressed. 

Here at Lightyear Health, we work to remove barriers to care for patients, caretakers, and medical teams. We believe in comprehensive and out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to patient needs and therapy options, and we’re here to help you and your loved ones every step of the way. 

In the Lightyear blog, you can learn about conditions common to older individuals, like functional incontinence, and access the resources and information you need as a caregiver today.  

What Is Functional Incontinence? 

Urinary incontinence is a condition that causes frequent and ineffective urination, often leading to the urge to urinate when unnecessary, and waking in the night to urinate. Incontinence can also contribute to the development of other bladder conditions and infections that can be frustrating and difficult to navigate. 

Functional incontinence is a more specific type of incontinence that often presents in older individuals with cognitive disabilities or lapses in memory. Rather than disrupting the body’s physical mechanisms, functional incontinence is a type of disability that means an individual cannot access the resources they need in time for use. Specifically, individuals struggle to find, access, or effectively use the toilet on their own. 

Traditional forms of urinary incontinence affect the bladder and urinary systems, and may include infections, bladder and kidney stones, and bladder distension. In the case of functional incontinence, the body is functioning as normal, but there is some limitation preventing or challenging the individual from accessing what they need to use the restroom. 

Over time, this can contribute to physical side effects. More pressingly, however, it can affect a person’s quality of life, sense of self-reliance, and feelings of self-esteem. Developing a care and management program between that person, their doctor, and their caregiver can help to provide them with a sense of independence and capability, and ultimately make it easier for them to go about the day. 

What Causes Functional Incontinence? 

Before developing a care and treatment program, it is important to understand the causes and reasons behind functional incontinence. Here are some of the most common causes for functional incontinence. 

Physical Barriers 

For many individuals managing functional incontinence, the root cause is physical. They may struggle to walk to the toilet, to remove their clothing, or sit without aid. Poor vision may also contribute to functional incontinence. 

In many cases, the individual has some or most functionality, but their movements are typically slow and uncoordinated. This means they may not have the ability to complete tasks in a timely manner, whether that’s removing their clothing or otherwise getting situated to use the restroom. 

When it comes to physical barriers, environment can play a large role. Factors like the location of the bathroom, how much light is available, and what handles or doors might be able to aid in access are all important things to consider, and they can affect how a person with functional incontinence goes about their daily routine. 

Cognitive Conditions 

Cognitive conditions can also prevent or reduce the ability of individuals to attend to their bathroom needs without assistance. In some cases, these may be chronic degenerative conditions, especially neurological conditions. 

In older individuals, it is more common to see cognitive conditions related to memory loss and delirium. In these instances, patients may have difficulty recognizing the restroom or toilet, communicating their personal needs, or even understanding and remembering what they’re feeling when they feel the urge to urinate.  

Tips for Caregivers Helping With Functional Incontinence

Individuals managing the effects of functional incontinence are often reliant on their caregivers to ensure they attend to their bathroom needs. That is why it can be so important to find methods of effective communication between the individual and their caregiver, and for caregivers to take proactive steps to help people with functional incontinence attend to their needs. 

Here are some steps that caregivers can take to ensure individuals have as much access and independence as possible when using the restroom. 

Clear Barriers 

The environment surrounding the bathroom can play a large role when it comes to access for individuals with physical conditions that contribute to functional incontinence. It can also affect those with cognitive and memory-based incontinence issues, as well.

Caretakers should clear a safe path for people to visit the restroom from the bedroom, or the room where they spend most of their time. It’s helpful to ensure there are aid devices, as well, as this can help encourage individuals to begin the journey or more safely navigate the path themselves. 

Individuals experiencing memory loss benefit from a consistent environment. Once the path is cleared, try to avoid changing or altering the setup. This will help to keep the individual feeling safe and comfortable when attending to their needs. 

Caregivers may also want to set up extra lights in the restroom and surrounding the toilet. This can be helpful for people with reduced eyesight, especially at night. Softer lights may also make the environment more friendly and less intimidating, which is important for those with cognitive or memory conditions. 

Reduce Physical Barriers

Physical barriers can be frustrating for patients, and may make it difficult for caregivers to provide the best possible support. That’s why caregivers and patients may want to work together to remove some of the physical barriers that make it difficult to attend to bathroom needs. 

One of the largest barriers to consider is clothing. For those with stiff or shaky hands, smaller buttons and zippers can be difficult to manage, especially under pressure. Ask your loved one if they feel comfortable swapping into clothing that is easier to remove in a hurry — exercise clothing or even just spandex-based bands in place of those that are zipped or button closed can make a big difference. 

You may also want to consider changing the location of the toilet paper or wipes, as it can be difficult for patients to turn or reach once seated. Added handrails and handles can ensure that they’re safe while attending to their needs. 

Recognize Cues and Signs 

For some patients, it may be difficult to communicate their needs, or they may have difficulty understanding their urges if they have significant cognitive disabilities. 

Caregivers should pay close attention to common signs and practices that a patient is experiencing the urge to urinate. This may present as restlessness, a tugging at the hem of a shirt or the waistband of pants, or signs of agitation and frustration. 

Each person will have their own cues and indicators that they need to visit the bathroom. But once a caregiver can better understand and interact with those cues, it will be easier for both individuals to find a method that works efficiently. 

Add Memory Aids

In addition to mobility aids, which can help to support people with physical limitations, it can be helpful to add memory aids, as well. Each individual will need different resources and tools to manage their condition, but useful methods may include illustrations or titles in specific locations, sticky notes or written explanations, or even access to a notebook or journal they can keep close. 

These types of tools and aids can help to provide important information, so those managing the conditions of memory loss and dementia may still experience a sense of independence and self-reliance. 


Many bladder conditions and types of incontinence can be difficult to manage, especially when it comes to functional incontinence. With functional incontinence, there are no physical conditions affecting a person’s physical or biological capacity for urination. Rather, it is their own physical  surroundings or cognitive condition that limits their ability to follow a regular bathroom routine. 

The good news is that with a few simple changes or additions to their environment, it is possible for caregivers to efficiently attend to the needs of someone with functional incontinence. This may mean moving items or obstacles out of the way to make an easier path to the restroom, adding memory tools to the bathroom or along the path to the bathroom, or trying out clothing that is easier to remove in a hurry. 

Caring for older adults and adults with cognitive conditions can be challenging for the individual and the caretaker alike, but Lightyear Health is here to help. We advocate for the needs of aging persons, provide information on advanced therapy techniques, and provide resources for caregivers as the needs of the individual they’re caring for changes. 

Here at Lightyear Health, you’ll find information on dementia in seniors, best practices for managing bladder conditions, high-tech, low-impact therapy solutions, and more. 

Get in touch with our team today to explore all the ways we can help.


Cognitive Defect | Science Direct 

Barriers to and Facilitators of Physical Activity Program Use Among Older Adults | US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health  

Memory training interventions for older adults: A meta-analysis | US National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health 

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